Eighties on Eight and the Homeless

5 days to 50.

Sirius XM has a station called Eighties on Eight where they only play music from the eighties. It is one of the presets in my car (along with Heart and Soul and The Groove- don’t judge me too harshly).

When I drive to the gym on Saturday mornings I always catch the middle of a random eighties top 40 countdown and without fail a song comes on that takes me back to my past.

Today that song was “We Built this City” by Starship from 1985. In 1985 I was 22 years old. Whenever I hear it I am immediately back in college in North Dakota at an off campus party in some dismal little apartment. I clearly remember standing there with a drink in my hand hearing the words “The city by the bay” and wondering if I would ever see San Francisco again.

I had been there once in high school. We lived in Sacramento for a few years and my parents took us to San Francisco one weekend. The only thing I remember from that trip was seeing a homeless person for the first time. I wasn’t even aware that there were homeless people before that. We saw a man looking for food in a garbage can down by Fisherman’s Wharf. There were seagulls flying all around him hoping he would find something in the garbage can and drop it on the sidewalk for them.

I stood there dumbfounded, just staring at him. My father ran up and grabbed me by the arm to pull me away. We didn’t really have homeless people in Montana or North Dakota, or even in the area we were in Sacramento. Or I was just so clueless and unaware that I didn’t realize that people slept on the streets and ate out of garbage cans. It was a wake-up call for me. Life wasn’t always as safe and organized as I’d assumed it to be.

I ended up living in San Francisco in my thirties. There was a homeless woman a couple of blocks away from a restaurant I worked in. I passed by her every day and started carrying dollar bills in my pockets to give to her. This went on for months and then one day she just wasn’t there. I worried about her. I hoped she was OK. Then I hardened my heart and stopped giving money to the homeless.

The naïveté of that 17-year-old girl seeing her first homeless person is, of course, long gone.  Now I’ve seen thousands of homeless people. I’ve seen so many homeless people that I’m desensitized to them. They stand on the freeway off-ramps with their handmade signs and I busy myself with my mobile phone or the radio buttons (yes, oscillating between Eighties on Eight and Heart and Soul). I have friends who carry cash in their cars to hand out to homeless people. I tell myself that giving them money doesn’t help them long-term so I just try to ignore them.

A few weeks ago in Portland after the World Domination Summit while my friend and I were waiting for the train a homeless young man approached us. He told us a story about how he needed $2.00 to get a shelter for the night. I turned away as I always do but my friend reached in his pocket and pulled out a $20.00 bill and handed it to him. The young man was dumfounded. He stumbled all over himself thanking my friend, admitting he was really a drug addict but that he was trying to change his life. I was blown away and genuinely impressed with the generosity and grace of my friend. He nodded and told him,

 Tonight you’ll be safe. Good luck to you.

Wow. That small moment of kindness really made me think. Can I continue to turn my head when I see someone in pain? Can I try to handle these types of situations in the future with the grace and generosity of my friend?

What I know today is that I’m willing to try.

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